Tag Archives: foia

NY Times: Newspapers Should Litigate Public Records Suits

The New York Times published an great article yesterday, titled “How The Times Uses FOIA to Obtain Information The Public Has A Right To Know.” The article explains why the Times firmly believes that challenging an agency’s response to a public records request is important to transparency.

Key quote:

Although smaller newspapers usually do not have in-house counsel to litigate public records lawsuits, in New Jersey OPRA provides a fee-shifting mechanism to make it possible for to find competent counsel who will litigate denials on a contingency basis. Newspapers, journalists, and other media entities can take advantage of this fee-shifting provision to challenge denials of access without incurring any costs at all. As the Times notes, doing so greatly benefits the public and is an important part of the journalistic process.

P.S.  Remember – you only have 45 days to challenge a denial.

For more information, contact CJ Griffin.

 

Third Circuit Issues Important OPRA Decision on Legal Fees

According to N.J.S.A. 47:1A-6, a records requestor who prevails in any proceeding shall be entitled to an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees. We have written about OPRA’s fee-shifting provision before, noting that without the fee-shift most requestors would not have the funds to challenge denials of access. As a result, the state would be far less transparent.

On August 14, 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued an important published opinion relating to OPRA’s mandatory fee-shifting provision.

The case, titled Golden v. New Jersey Institute for Technology, involved OPRA requests filed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden, who was seeking records from NJIT to use as research for his book, “Spy Schools: How the CIA, FBI, and Foreign Intelligence Secretly Exploit America’s Universities.” Many of the responsive records in NJIT’s files originated from the FBI and were purportedly subject to prohibitions on public dissemination.

The records custodian reached out to the FBI to determine how to respond to the request and the FBI directed NJIT to withhold most of the records “[i]n no uncertain terms.” NJIT thus denied the OPRA requests by claiming the records were exempt.  Golden sued.

After the lawsuit was filed and removed to federal court, the FBI reviewed the previously withheld records and NJIT produced thousands of pages of documents that it had formerly deemed to be exempt. Golden moved for attorney’s fees, arguing that he was a prevailing party because his lawsuit was the “catalyst” for NJIT’s release of records that were not exempt. The District Court denied the fee motion and was “persuaded by NJIT’s position that it had acted reasonably in following the FBI’s direction.”

The Third Circuit disagreed and all but stated, “If a public agency permits a third party–even if it’s the FBI–to dictate its OPRA response, then that public agency will be on the hook for attorneys’ fees if it turns out that the denial of access was unlawful.” The court made it clear that it is the custodian who has the obligation “to parse the requested records, decide whether exemptions appl[y], and withhold documents pursuant to those exemptions” and that obligation cannot be outsourced to a third party outside the agency.

Importantly, the Third Circuit flatly rejected the argument that OPRA’s fee-shifting provision contains any “reasonableness” requirement. State courts have reached the same conclusion based on the plain language of OPRA, but public agencies still make this argument to trial courts.

This decision is important because there are often times where issues of first impression are litigated and the agency was operating under good faith when it denied a request, but nonetheless was wrong as a matter of law. In such situations, the OPRA requestor is still entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees. Indeed, OPRA contains a mandatory fee-shifting provision so that requestors can find competent counsel to litigate those types of cases.

Lawsuit Challenges Essex County Prosecutor’s Refusal to Disclose Police Videos and Name of Newark Officer Who Fatally Shot Fleeing Motorist


Last week, CJ Griffin filed an OPRA lawsuit on behalf of Richard Rivera against the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office (ECPO) relating to its refusal to disclose the name of a Newark police officer who shot at a fleeing vehicle during a pursuit in January 2019, killing the driver and injuring the passenger. The lawsuit also seeks access to footage from police body-worn cameras and dash cameras.

ECPO denied the request because it is “concerned” that the officer may refuse to testify before the grand jury if his or her name is publicly disclosed. Mr. Rivera’s lawsuit argues that this is not a lawful basis for denying access to the information and videos and that transparency is important when police-involved shootings occur.

In 2017, we won an appeal in the New Jersey Supreme Court on a similar issue in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst, 229 N.J. 541 (2017). In Lyndhurst, the Supreme Court ruled that the public was entitled to learn the identities of the police officers involved in fatal shootings and see videos of those incidents “shortly after the incident,” after investigators “have interviewed the principal witnesses who observed the shooting and are willing to speak to law enforcement.” The Court stated that disclosure should ordinarily occur “within days of an incident, well before a grand jury presentation or possible trial.” In coming to such conclusions, the Court stated that the public has a significant interest in knowing the details about police-involved shootings and that non-disclosure of such information can undermine confidence in law enforcement.

As we previously wrote, in February 2018, the Attorney General issued Law Enforcement Directive 2018-1 to codify the Supreme Court’s decision.  The Directive states that videos of police-involved shootings should be released when the “initial investigation” is “substantially complete,” which means that the principal witnesses have been interviewed and the evidence has been gathered. This should “typically will occur within 20 days of the incident itself.” Only in extraordinary circumstances could a video be withheld longer than 20 days.

In this case, the police-involved shooting occurred on January 28, 2019 and ECPO still refuses to release the officer’s identity or the police videos more than three months later.

NJ Advance Media has written an article about the lawsuit, which provides more details about the underlying shooting incident. A hearing date has not yet been set by the court.

*Photo by Matt Popovich on Unsplash

“The Legal Implications of Governmental Social Media Use”

Pashman Stein Walder Hayden partner CJ Griffin has published an article in the April 2019 issue of New Jersey Lawyer magazine, titled “The Legal Implications of Governmental Social Media Use.” A full copy of the article can be viewed here:

Vendor Activity Reports: A Helpful Tool for Tracking Spending

Many people want to know how they can monitor an agency’s spending and determine how much an agency is paying a certain vendor (such as a law firm, plumber, construction company, or insurance company) or even who the agency’s vendors are. A “Vendor Activity Report” (or “Vendor History Report”) is a very helpful tool for learning this information.

A Vendor Activity/History Report details all payments made to every individual or company that was entered into the agency’s accounting software in order to receive a payment. If a bill is paid, then there is a corresponding “vendor” entry in the accounting software.  The Vendor Activity/History Report will list all of the vendors and the total amount of money they were paid during the requested time frame. Once you obtain the report and see something that interests you, then you can you can request the corresponding payment vouchers and bills/invoices for that vendor to further investigate the spending. Requestors have used the Vendor Activity/History Report to identify large reimbursements to the agency’s employees, for example.

Here are a couple examples of Vendor Activity Reports from NJ towns that we found on the Internet, so you can see what they look like and how helpful they can be:

Egg Harbor Township’s Vendor Activity Report, located here, lists all vendors for the designated time frame (2015). This type of report is helpful because you can see the total payments made to every single vendor contained in the agency’s accounting software during a specified time period. If you do not know anything about an agency’s finances or which vendors they use, you can ask for the full vendor activity report and learn who the vendors are and how much they were paid. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all vendors by vendor name for payments made January 1, 2018 to present date.”

Eagleswood Township’s Vendor Activity Reports, located here on this OPRA Machine request,  provide a breakdown of all payments to an identified vendor during the specified time frame. This type of report is helpful when you know about a vendor already and just want to see how much they were paid during a specific time period. In these reports, the requestor sought the activity report for three specific vendors (newspapers). The reports show all of the payments made to those vendors. To request this type of report, one would simply say: “Pursuant to OPRA and the common law right of access, I seek the vendor activity or vendor history report for all payments made to [Insert Name of Vendor/Company] for January 1, 2018 to present date.”

If you have any questions about this topic, please feel free to contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com

CJ Griffin Interviewed for Marketplace Reports on NPR

CJ Griffin, a member of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden’s Media Law Group, was interviewed by Marketplace regarding a prior OPRA lawsuit she brought against the City of Newark seeking its Amazon HQ2 bid.

The public radio program, “What’s in Those Amazon HQ2 Bids? It’s Not Entirely Clear” by Renata Sago and Leila Goldstein, aired on Tuesday, November 6th.

“There’s hundreds of millions or billions of dollars, of tax dollars, at stake,” said CJ Griffin, a partner at Pashman Stein Walder Hayden, who argued the case. “That’s taxpayer money. When you give tax breaks, that impacts other people, so the public has a right to know.”

To listen to the story, click here

For more background on the lawsuit, click here.

You Only Have 45 Days to Sue for an OPRA Violation

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about OPRA is that there is a very, very short statute of limitations period. This means that if you receive a denial, you need to act very quickly or you may lose your rights to gain access to the record you seek.

What do you do if you receive a denial from an agency or if the agency unlawfully redacts information from government records?

The best course of action is to immediately speak to an attorney, who can work with you to gain access to the records. This frequently requires a lawsuit filed in Superior Court.  Again, the most important thing to remember is that your action must be filed within the statute of limitations, which is only 45 calendar days. The process for filing in Superior Court is as follows:

  • You will sign a retainer agreement with an attorney, who will likely agree to represent you on a fee-shifting basis (meaning, there will be no charge to you–the agency will pay the fees if and when you prevail)
  • A Verified Complaint and Order to Show Cause is filed. These will be drafted by the requestor’s attorney, though the requestor must sign the complaint to verify it is accurate.
  • The judge will review and sign the order, which sets for a briefing schedule and a hearing date.
  • The pleadings are then served upon the public agency and they will submit an opposition brief. Sometimes, an agency may opt to release the records and settle the attorney fee amount rather than proceed with the litigation.
  • The requestor’s attorney has an opportunity to file a reply brief.
  • A hearing is held, wherein the judge will hear arguments from both sides. For simple cases, the judge will usually enter a ruling that day. More complex cases may require a little more time for an opinion to issue. The requestor need not be present for the hearing.
  • If the requestor is declared a prevailing party, the Court will order the agency to pay the requestor’s attorney fees.

Again, the most important thing to remember is that there is a very short timeline for filing the initial Verified Complaint – 45 days from the date your request was denied.

For more information about this blog post and challenging a denial of access, please contact cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

Lawsuit Seeks Settlement/Separation Agreement For Corrections Officer

NJ Advance Media has written about the recent lawsuit we filed on behalf of Libertarians for Transparent Government seeking a settlement/separation agreement between Cumberland County and a corrections officer who allegedly had inappropriate relationships with inmates. The lawsuit also asks the Court to find that Cumberland County violated OPRA when it told Plaintiff that the corrections officer was “terminated for disciplinary reasons,” when the Pension Board’s meeting minutes state that he was allowed to “retire in good standing.”

PSWH partner CJ Griffin is quoted in the article:

Attorney CJ Griffin, representing the plaintiff, argued that the county has provided a distorted view of Ellis’ case.

“By indicating that Ellis had been terminated for a disciplinary infraction, it leads the public to believe that Ellis paid a price for his admitted misconduct,” the suit states, “In reality, according to the pension board’s minutes, Cumberland County instead allowed him to ‘retire in good standing.'”

The South Jersey Times also published an editorial on the case, arguing that settlement agreements with employees should never be confidential.

For more information on the lawsuit and to review the pleadings, visit John Paff’s “NJ Open Government Notes” blog.

For questions about OPRA, contact CJ Griffin at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.

 

 

Supreme Court Rules Dash Cams Pertaining to Criminal Investigations Are Not Subject to OPRA

This week, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a split decision (4-3) in Paff v. Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and once again ruled that dash camera videos that pertain to criminal investigations are not subject to the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

While the decision is a serious disappointment to transparency advocates, it does not actually change the status quo. Last year, in North Jersey Media Group Inc. v. Township of Lyndhurst, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the dash cam video of a police-involved deadly shooting was not subject to OPRA because there was no Attorney General (AG) guideline or other law (statute, regulation, etc.) that required it to be made or maintained.[1]

The Court made it clear in Lyndhurst, however, that dash camera videos of police shootings should generally be released under the common law right of access within a few days of an incident. The AG subsequently issued a directive requiring their release within 20 days.

In Lyndhurst, the Court specifically said that it was not answering the question presented by Paff (which was pending on the Court’s docket): whether a directive by a local chief of police could satisfy the “required by law” standard, just as an AG directive does. Thus, the Paff case became a new opportunity for transparency advocates to convince the Court that dash camera videos are accessible under OPRA.

Unfortunately, the Court rejected that argument and thus the law remains the same: dash camera videos are only available under the common law right of access. But, it was a very close decision (4-3). Justice Albin wrote a biting dissent, which Justice LaVecchia and Justice Timpone joined, concluding that “[i]n the wake of today’s majority opinion, the operations of our government will be less transparent and our citizenry less informed, which may lead to greater misunderstanding and more distrust between the public and the police.”

We think Justice Albin’s assessment is right and we hope that the Legislature or the Attorney General will accept his invitation for action:

In accordance with Lyndhurst, the Attorney General or the Legislature can undo the damage caused by today’s decision. The Attorney General can adopt a statewide policy that addresses whether and how police video recordings are made and maintained, as he did with Use of Force Reports.

The public — particularly marginalized communities — will have greater trust in the police when law enforcement activities are transparent.

The public pays for the dash cameras. Why can’t we see the videos?

What Videos are Still Available?

  • Dash Cam Videos Relating to Crimes: These are probably not available under OPRA in most circumstances, but generally should be available under the common law per Lyndhurst.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Police Using Deadly Force: Same. Also, AG Directive 2018-1 requires disclosure under the common law within 20 days if the video depicts a deadly shooting or an incident where police use force that results in “serious bodily injury.”
  • Dash Cam Videos of a DWI: A DWI is not a crime, so these should generally be available under OPRA.
  • Dash Cam Videos of Traffic Stops: These should generally be available, unless the traffic stop turns criminal.
  • Body Camera Videos: We think these should be subject to OPRA because an AG Guideline requires them to be maintained. At the same time, the AG Guideline attempts to exempt body cam videos relating to criminal investigations. We have this issue pending on appeal.
  • Security Camera Videos: The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that security camera videos are not subject to OPRA, but access should be granted under the common law where a person states a sufficient interest in the video.

PSWH partner CJ Griffin submitted a brief on behalf of several amicus curiae and participated in the nearly three-hour oral argument. Griffin has litigated dozens of police records cases, including Lyndhurst.  Contact CJ at cgriffin@pashmanstein.com


[1] A criminal investigatory record is a record that is 1) held by a law enforcement agency; 2) pertain to any criminal investigation and 3) are “not required by law to be made, maintained, or kept on file.”

Appellate Division Rules Agencies Cannot Hide Behind Technology

Last week, the Appellate Division issued a published decision that is very important to transparency.  While the court’s analysis of its standard of review over GRC decisions will excite appellate attorneys, it is the more substantive portion of the court’s decision that grabbed our attention.

The case is Conley v. N.J. Dep’t of Corrections, ___ N.J. Super. ___ (App. Div. Jan. 12, 2018), and it involves an OPRA request that was filed by Kevin Conley, an inmate at the New Jersey State Prison.

Mr. Conley’s OPRA request sought “monthly remedy statistical reports” that were required to be produced by N.J.A.C. 10A:1-4.8(a)(4) and other federal laws. He had requested these reports in the past and they were always produced, but this time the DOC responded by saying that it had adopted a new computerized database in January 2014 and the requested monthly reports “are no longer generated or available.”

Mr. Conley objected, noting that he had always gotten the reports before and that the DOC was mandated by law to produce these monthly reports. The DOC continued to deny the request, insisting that it no longer generates the reports and that it was not obligated to “create a record.”

Mr. Conley filed a complaint on his own in the Government Records Council (tip: we advise going to court instead!) and lost. The GRC accepted the DOC Custodian’s certification that it did not possess the monthly reports and ruled that it did not violate OPRA.

The Appellate Division reversed the GRC. It noted that the DOC was mandated by federal and State regulations to make the monthly reports. It held that were it to accept the DOC’s argument that the report was no longer available based on the manner by which DOC chose to store this public data, it would render “the public policy of transparency and openness the Legislature codified in [OPRA] unacceptably vulnerable to bureaucratic manipulation.”

Importantly, the Court held that “[t]echnological advancements in data storage should enhance, not diminish, the public’s right to access ‘government records’ under OPRA . . . . A government agency cannot erect technological barriers to deny access to government records.”

What does this mean for OPRA requestors?  This case builds upon the Supreme Court’s recent holding in Paff v. Galloway, which held that electronically stored information is a government record that must be produced. Where an agency is obligated by law to produce a certain type of report or a specific document each month (or year) and it fails to do so because it has moved to an electronic database, it cannot avoid its obligations under OPRA. It would need to pull data from its database to produce the report/document to the requestor.

For assistance with OPRA matters, please contact CJ Griffin at 201-488-8200 or cgriffin@pashmanstein.com.